Monday, June 8, 2009

Prints in frames

In earlier blogs, I discussed the importance of proper framing for prints. Currently, there are framers all around the country who do “museum quality” framing and so a good percentage of the antique prints getting framed now are done properly. This was not, unfortunately, the case in earlier days. It wasn’t until probably about the last twenty years or so that museum quality framing became easily available, and there really wasn’t any such thing prior to about the 1960s. As a consequence, a significant majority of the prints that were framed before the 1990s are not properly framed.

This means that many framed prints are in an environment that has probably already caused them significant harm, and which will continue to do so as time marches on. These prints will typically be in acidic-mats or have wood backing, they will often be glued down to acidic-backings or hinged with acidic-hinges, they will be “repaired” with tape that is harming the prints, they will have insect or mold damage, and they will have glazing that offers no protection from the harmful effects of light.

The sad fact is that the majority of framed antique prints should be reframed. Often when I visit someone’s house and see antique prints, I have to tell them that they really should have their prints reframed. This is often not a popular suggestion, but unless these prints are reframed, they will slowly, but surely continue to deteriorate.

Unfortunately, the problem is not really solved simply by having the prints reframed, for many of the problems caused by the old frame have affected the prints themselves, so that the prints will continue to get worse even when removed from the old frames. The mold, mildew or foxing in a print remains harmful to the print unless treated, and even if these specific issues are absent, any print that was in an acidic environment for any length of time will have absorbed some of the acid from the mat or backing and that acid will continue to break down the paper fibers unless it is treated. So the further sad fact is that the majority of framed antique prints should not only be reframed, but should be conserved as well.

This means, of course, a considerable expense for the print owner. For a typical small folio Currier & Ives print in an old frame, with just standard condition issues, it might cost about $200 to $250 to conserve it and refit it into its frame (that is, put it back in with rag mat, etc.). Those prints with worse conditions issues (if they are laid down or badly stained, for instance) or prints of a larger size, will cost even more. This obviously means a serious expense for the owner of antique prints and it is something that is a regular concern for us at the Philadelphia Print Shop.

There are some prints where it just doesn’t make sense to spend the money to fix them up unless they have a lot of sentimental value. If a print is worth only $50 or so, then it seems ridiculous to pay $250 or more to fix it up. However, even if a print is worth only about the same as the cost of the restoration and reframing, or even a little less, it might make sense to fix up the print if you like it or it means something special to you. It is not always easy to find the same print in better shape, and antique prints do retain their value (assuming they do not deteriorate in condition), so it is reasonable to make the investment in preserving the print even if the value doesn't quite equal the cost.

The worst situations we run into are where someone has a house full of antique prints that need conservation and reframing. The work on all of them can add up to a considerable total. In these cases we often suggest that a plan be designed to have them done over a period of time. Pick the most valuable or the worst condition prints and have them done, then do another one or two in another six months or a year, and so on, so that over time you can have all your prints preserved.

A final few thoughts on this subject... First, you should keep this issue in mind when looking to buy an antique print. Many prints that you find in antique shops or at auction need restoration and reframing. You might, for instance, be able to buy a nice small folio Currier & Ives print at an auction for, say, $50, which might seem like a good deal when you know that a print gallery might sell it for $150. However, if you figure that you need to spend $200 or so to restore and reframe it, it becomes clear that this isn't such a good value.

Finally, we hate to see antique prints be destroyed by inaction. Certainly there are some prints of low value or that are relatively common where the cost of fixing them doesn’t make sense, but if you own an antique print that needs to be fixed and don’t want to pay to have this done, perhaps you should consider selling the print to someone who will fix it up and then buying something that doesn’t need any work. It is not good to simply ignore the issue of prints that are not properly framed. Whatever value they currently have will leach away as the prints continue to deteriorate.


  1. I have a Vernon Howe Bailey print of the Standard Oil Building in NYC dated 1949. It is 24 x 16 and needs some cleaning but is in good shape otherwise. I am wondering what it might cost to have it restored
    and if it is worth it ?

  2. I recently purchased a print of 1901 a Howard Chandler Christy painting. The painting is based on an 1899 sketch Christy did for Leslie'ls Weekly as a correspondent covering the Spanish American War. The sketch was :
    " It's Not Always the Bullets that Kill", but the painting has the title on the scene ";It is not only Bullets that wound".

    I believe the print is a hand drawn stone lithograph - it somewhat resembles a watercolor. The scene is of a soldier reading a letter in camp with the vision of a lovely woman in his mind, seated left.

    Unlike other prints of this painting, I've seen, it doesn'lt have the lithographer name imprinted on the scene , but it does have a 1901 Scribner copyright imprint like others. It is mounted on a hard board. While I haven't seen the margins as there is a currently attached mat, the margins to seem to be trimmed closely.

    Chandler was born in Ohio and lived here possibly during the time the print was produced, and I bought it not far from his Ohio studio, The Barracks"- I am thinking it may be a proof. I am going to have new matting and glass made for it, but is this lovely piece doomed (from a preservation standpoint) due to the hard pressed board the print was mounted on?

    I have fallen in love with this print in a short amount of time- due to Christy's wide range of subjects and his interesting career! I want to do what is responsible to preserve it withìn its value....and my means. Any advice?

    1. Without seeing it in person I cannot be sure, but I doubt very much it is a proof (they would not have copyright dates on them). The lack of printed information is fairly typical of prints from this period, so I think it likely is simply a commercial print which was issued that way. In terms of preserving it, there is no question that if you leave it on the board, in the long run it will be destroyed. However, it probably does not have enough value to warrant--purely on a financial basis--the cost of restoration. It probably will not deteriorate that quickly, so you can probably enjoy it for most, if not all, or your lifetime as is.

  3. I have an Edgar degas print from Chicago moulding co, it’s old has some water marks on the top. Would it be worth repairing?